This is about a treat, something I find delightful and relish in. The maybe-joking post is not necessarily a treat itself, though I hope you may enjoy it.
How to have a good time given the freedom to chose and only a limited time to do it? It’s a question that can plague us incessantly. To do this or that, but maybe the other thing. Some people choose an extreme sport, like climbing a face of rock in the blistering sun or near winter with ice forming in the shade and on their fingertips. Maybe jumping from a cliff or small aircraft is the activity of choice to get the most out of life. Some may hop in a well-made German car with some friends, accelerate pressingly down a stretch of open road then pull up in front of a nightclub and step out in fly gear, fresh to death, confidently walk in and drink a bottle of fine French vodka as part of a refined and debauched evening. There are men of my age and position who may firmly assert that a good time is a roll in the hay with a woman with a devious sparkle in her eye and, to quote Homer Simpson, “a butt that won’t quit”. Others still would call for the calm of a lake with the low sizzle of flesh on the barbeque in the background, beside the beer cooler, awaiting them.
These activities, yes, excite me, for they are no doubt wild and pull at the senses, but that does not mean they are truly wanted, an honest treat.
This paragraph is the recipe for me. I learn of some event that has been organized, usually at a university with a recognized name. The subject matter is something I care about but don’t know well enough. I go near the location, usually a campus, and find a place to read. If I can go to the library I do. For a few hours, I am drawn to books I wouldn’t normally read. People who have put thoughts onto paper at some previous date speak to me in black and white. It’s an honour. Books I never knew existed are in my hands. There’s so much there to sift through, to catch myself only catching certain books in the basket I’ve labelled as ‘important’. Piles grow. The ‘need to read’ pile, the ‘need to investigate because I disagree’ pile, the ‘I now own this book and should read it’ pile. Then there is the event. I go and find the room, usually talking to some people who know the place I don’t along the way. The event happens, predictable but always with surprises. Then the reception, which is the true pinnacle. The crowd in little blobs slowly stumbles to the designated food and conversation area. It is in that humus that the conversations grow, amongst the rectangular and circular cut vegetables, with a glass of low-medium range red wine in hand. Visiting another school, or at one’s own institution, the cast of characters and the conversations that will emerge and get carried far and wide are predictable to no one. That is, as long as someone is willing to stir. There certainly are foreseeable conversations, and this is even a part of the treat. Just as the first several hands in the air after the talk to ask questions of the speaker are of men, the first uneasy lines of conversation among many in the reception is about who is studying what, and where they are from. Somehow the subject of the talk is momentarily forgotten, and disregarded permanently if other themes are grasped onto tightly enough. But it is here that I am a shit and take great enjoyment in being so. The most important part of the recipe, like needing blast a crème brulée with heat to make it what it is, is bringing the discussion back to what was talked about but not thoroughly explored and pushing people to express their own insights and opinions. The method to get people going is a matter of sensitivity. No two crowds are the same, and as no two batches of sourdough can be treated as equal it is thus at these receptions even if the plastic cup of red wine feels the same as every other glass at every event year on year. With some careful plying, and maybe some scraping, the deeper coats start to show, and people start to make statements exposing deeper and deeper assumptions. Oh, this is delightful. More than any jaunt through a pine forest planted in a perfect grid, this shows true nature. How far can the logic of these people hold up, and how long can mine? How many assumptions down and back and forward do I have to maneuver? How many new ideas and stands do I have to take to keep standing? How incredible is it to be engaged in conversation that makes you not just dig down and around, but also build up, to imagine and create? The ultimate effect of this, after the encounter, all depends on the quality of the relationships created. How many enthusiastic friendships have been made, and how many cases of mutual disdain formed in the airs of civility? Then, the substance having been spilt and recollected, the encounter ends. The appetizers are either gone or the organizer and caterer are desperate to get rid of the trays of food. I am a willing helper, but no, they will not open that other bottle of red. I didn’t really want it anyway. I got what I wanted. At a feast for the mind, the material consumables are far from primary.
That is what I’ve come to relish in. It is almost overshadowed by the joy of getting read a simple and clear and honest book, usually at a public library, by someone with a gentle voice. The tingling on the back of my skull and neck produced then is about as good as it gets. But that is a one-way flow breeding blissful submission. Compared to wandering into an event milieu, getting read a book is almost lazy, which is entirely perfect at times, but lacks the thrill of self-actualization.
Wandering onto campuses to hear people and discuss and almost inevitably argue is the activity. The idea of a good time. Just as the house that gave out only Oh Henry’s! at Halloween was a favorite stop with near gravitational pull for a while, so it is with this. Exquisite, for now. A euphoric delight.
P.S. I was reading Infinite Jest then Pride and Prejudice and hanging out at Stanford, which is a paradise of a campus, just before writing this, if that explains anything.